The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History

the-daily-showI first got into The Daily Show sometime in 2002. I had cable TV for the first time in my life, and watching the previous night’s episode at 7 pm while eating dinner became part of my typical evening routine. Like a lot of people, I became more informed about my country and the world by watching The Daily Show, and I was entertained. Jon Stewart’s commitment to bringing absurdity and hypocrisy into the light was just what I needed during the Bush years.

In the years since, I’ve been an on-again, off-again fan. There were periods when I watched the whole show almost every night and periods when I’d just catch sketches that went viral. But my respect for the show remained even when I watched less. And as much as I appreciate John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, and Trevor Noah, I’ve missed Stewart this past year. (Also, Larry Wilmore, whose show deserved a longer run than it got.)

This book wasn’t quite the same as having Stewart back behind the desk at Comedy Central, but it was fun. As the title says, it’s an oral history, so there’s not a lot of pure narrative. The correspondents, writers, producers, staff, and guests all share their own perspectives on the show, with only a few bits of explanatory text sprinkled in. It’s arranged chronologically, so it’s not too hard to follow, although I agree with Citizen Reader that a little more context might have been useful at times. It’s a big book, and I would say that it’s longer than it really needed to be, but I’m not sure what could have been cut, since every fan probably has a different favorite period.

For myself, I was most interested in stories about how the different correspondents came to be part of the show and stories of specific well-known segments (like John Oliver’s three-part gun control series). I also liked hearing about some of the ways the show’s approach to its stories evolved over the years, although as a viewer, I can’t say that I noticed some of the shifts they were talking about. Perhaps they happened too gradually to see.

The one change I did see was the effort to bring on a more diverse group of correspondents in the Stewart’s last years. That is discussed in the book, as is the conflict between Stewart and Wyatt Cenac that made the news near the end of Stewart’s tenure. In this case, as in several others, the different people involved don’t always recall or interpret events in the same way, and the oral history approach means that we just get to hear all their views without having an author weighing in.

I was left with some questions about the role of women on the show. It’s described several times in the book as a boy’s club, although there were several women who had positions of authority behind the scenes. But I can’t help but remember that the show typically only has one or two regular correspondents who are women, and almost all of those women have been white. It’s a show that could do better, and I’m glad that Samantha Bee has her own show now that’s filled with funny women. (Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show also excelled in including women.)

Overall, I enjoyed reading this. I liked hearing from these people who entertained and enlightened me over the years, and there were some great behind-the-scenes moments. I loved learning how the writers pulled together the many clips they used and how that process evolved over time. (The beginning of Tivo was a big deal.) I skimmed some sections that focused on shifts in the writing and producing staffs, but the rest held my interest. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book for the casual viewer, but as someone who’s between a casual viewer and a hard-core fan, this was a good read.

Posted in Nonfiction | 2 Comments

March: Book 3

march-book-threeThe third volume of John Lewis’s memoir in comic-book form picks up with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls. As the head of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Lewis, along with fellow SNCC members and activists from other groups, had to start thinking of a response. They turned their attention to voting rights.

The memoir, cowritten by Lewis and Andrew Aydin, with art by Nate Powell, chronicles the voter registration drives in Alabama and Mississippi, efforts to win representation at the Democratic Convention in 1964, and the Selma-Montgomery March. Like the previous volumes in the series, March, Book Three shows how the various aspects of the Civil Rights movement fit together. For me, this is one of things that makes these books such a tremendous contribution to literature on the movement. I’ve learned about various events and people over the years, but until reading these books, I didn’t have a good sense of the movement as a whole.

Many elements of the stories recounted here and in the previous books are familiar. There’s extreme violence and extreme courage. The murder of Civil Rights workers in Mississippi gets attention, as do the many arrests and beatings. And throughout, the leaders’ careful thought about the direction of the movement is clear. Lewis and the other leaders of the movement do not always agree, and the conflicts within SNCC are not ignored.

I read the first two March books last year back in 2015, not realizing how much more relevant the stories of protest would become in the following year. To be sure, the need to protest injustice never stopped, it’s just that the magnitude of present-day injustice was out of sight to many of us for a long time. Today, it’s clear that the work of Lewis and others isn’t done. Stories about the DAPL protests and proposals to lessen the consequences for people who run down protesters in the street show that non-violent protest is still often dangerous today. May we all have courage to do what is right in these painful times.

Posted in Graphic Novels / Comics, Memoir, Nonfiction | 4 Comments

Cruel, Beautiful World

cruel-beautiful-worldSo this book is an emotional journey. There was a point near the end when I thought I’d have to throw it out the window in a rage, which would have been a shame, since I was reading it on my phone on my lunch break in my sixth-floor office. Luckily, the windows of my office don’t open and I was able to read the next chapter when I got home and calm down. But let me go back and tell you what it’s about.

Set mostly in 1969, this novel by Caroline Leavitt is the story of three sisters. Lucy, the youngest, is free-spirited. Responsible and studious Charlotte is the middle sister, but she believes she’s the oldest. And that’s because Iris, many decades older, tells them she is a distant relative when they are brought to her after their parents’ death when they are 5 and 7 years old. Iris doesn’t want them to know about the family their father abandoned, and the younger and younger women he picked up over the years. Iris, in her 60s, adopts the girls and raises them as daughters.

The novel opens with the revelation that Lucy is running away with her English teacher. William is popular with the students for his unorthodox methods, but the administration is keeping a close eye on his classroom antics. However, he still manages to meet Lucy on the sly and convince her that they are in love. So on the last day of school, he takes her away to a run-down house in the middle of nowhere. He takes a job at a school where students get to choose their own curriculum, and Lucy stays home alone because William fears what will happen to him if their relationship is discovered. When she’s 18, they can go public.

This relationship is clearly and unequivocally abusive, and it only gets worse. William controls what Lucy eats, where she goes, what she wears, who she talks to. And then it gets worse again. And then more. But I’ll get back to that.

Meanwhile, Charlotte and Iris are back at home in Boston grieving the loss of Lucy and not getting much help from the police at finding her. She’ll come back when she’s ready, they say. No one knew about her relationship with William, so no one thought to look for him. He’d just moved away, as people do. Charlotte goes to college at Brandeis, and Iris struggles with aging. Life goes on, but always with a shadow.

And then it gets worse.

I’m not going to reveal precisely what happens, but if you’re familiar with patterns of abuse and how things escalate, the conclusion of Lucy and Will’s relationship won’t be a surprise. It is a gut-punch, though. And the process of picking up the pieces is challenging. It’s a difficult kind of thing to recover from, and some of the particulars in this case make it horrible in a very specific way. Charlotte expresses some sentiments in this regard that I found especially raw and honest, and I appreciated seeing these them in print.

As I mentioned, however, there was a moment when this book entirely enraged me in a way that is unusual for me. This involved some epic gaslighting that I feared might end up being the author’s version of the truth. The fact that I was so furious speaks to my absorption in the book. However, the rage only lasted the afternoon because I was eventually able to get back to the book and see what Leavitt did with the revelations, and I was appeased. There was perhaps a little unnecessary tricksiness involved here, but there was also catharsis for a character who needed it.

The book ends, as books about horrors often do, with hope. Life does keep going. Plans may need to be tenuous because things happen that we can’t imagine, but we can keep going and maybe even find joy where it’s previously been denied.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Who We Be: The Colorization of America

who-we-beThis sprawling, ambitious book by Jeff Chang looks at the history of race and culture since the Civil Rights era. It’s a big topic—perhaps too big for a single book—but there’s a lot of value here.

Chang focuses primarily on race and the arts, especially the visual arts. There are chapters on ground-breaking exhibits showcasing the work of artists of color and how difficult it was for these artists to be taken seriously. If they did not adopt the values and modes of expression of white art culture, their work didn’t matter. But if they did adopt those values, would it even be their work? And would it even be accepted?

Reading these chapters, I wished I were more familiar with some of the artists and movements described, and I wished for more illustrations of some of the art itself. However, I did find some points of interest, especially when Chang describes the backlash of the artists’ work and how that criticism was used to pressure the government to defund the National Endowment of the Arts. I remember some of the examples and controversies he cites from the 80s and 90s, and it was valuable to look at them again through an older and more knowledgeable lens.

One of the things the book makes clear again and again is that art is political, and many of the disputes in our political world end up touching the art world and vice versa. Art that explores issues of identity ends up being targeted for not espousing so-called American ideals, even though “communities of color might be as invested as white liberals were in the project of making America.” And sometimes liberal allies turn toward a line of thinking all too familiar in recent months, even though this statement refers to the election of George H.W. Bush in 1988:

Plunged in despair, some liberals began to train their sights on multiculturalists, feminists, and queers, whom they said had destroyed the left with identity politics. Class, they said, was the real issue, not race or gender or sexuality. But, really, it was all of the above. Why had working-class white Americans—after half a century of strongly supporting strong government, social programs, and economic reform—turned so strongly against their own clear economic interests? What really was the matter with Kansas? It was the culture wars, stupid.

Cheng also looks at commercial art—specifically advertisements and commercials and different approaches to the question of whether it’s better to have a broad appeal or focus on a single market. He gets into the history that led up to Coke’s iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial. (It does not involve Don Draper at a commune.) And it never occurred to me that there might be a greater significance to the Budweiser Whassup? commercial until reading this.

Other types of art covered include comics and street art. The book opens with a terrific chapter on Morrie Turner, creator of the Wee Pals comic. I also enjoyed the chapter about Shepard Fairey, the artist who created the Obama “Hope” poster, although I’m puzzled about his inclusion in a book mostly about artists of color.

And that gets me to the biggest weakness in this otherwise powerful and valuable book. It sprawls a little too much, especially toward the end. As much as I appreciated the chapters on Trayvon Martin, the Occupy movement, and the Dreamers (heart-breakingly timely), they started to feel a little off-topic. They all have to do with race, but the art discussion so central to the rest of the book was largely left by the wayside. His most recent book, We Gon’ Be Alright is a collection of essays on with race, resegregation, and protest, and I wonder if these last chapters might fit better there.

Posted in Nonfiction | 1 Comment

Mister Monkey

mister-monkeyMister Monkey is a terrible musical based on an inexplicably beloved children’s book. And the production at the center of this novel by Francine Prose is particularly bad. But the cast and crew try:

They are in this together, everyone is happy to be here and disappointed to be here, glad to have a part in a play, glad to work for scale, but truthfully not all that overjoyed to be working in an off-off-off-off Broadway production of Mister Monkey, the umpteen-hundredth revival of the cheesy but mysteriously durable music based on the classic children’s novel.

Prose’s novel reads like a collection of linked stories, with each chapter following a different person, sometimes an actor in the play, sometimes a member of the audience, sometimes just someone connected to one of the people connected to the play. The thread winds through the city, returning again and again to the play.

I liked this structure. I could never tell just where it would go next, and it brought home the idea that every single person has a story invisible to everyone else. The man whose grandson spoke up loudly during a moment of quiet during the show is dealing with old age and the feeling of being left out as life rolls on. The grandson is fretting over the change in status that comes with a new school. (The grandson is said to be precocious, but he seemed excessively so to me.) His teacher is worrying over her inability to control her classroom in the way her principal and parents desire, especially when it means giving up teachable moments and ignoring student questions. And so on.

Not all of the chapters are as enjoyable as the others, but the nice thing is that if a particular character’s story bored me, another came along quickly. And often a new story would allow me to see a previous one in a new light. The book is at its weakest when the characters get philosophical and spiritual. There’s a whole section about the Monkey God that seemed over-the-top to me, but that could be my lack of familiarity with Hinduism. Then again, knowledge of Hinduism could have made it worse. The book is at its best when it uncovers characters—their hidden motivations and dreams behind the actions that don’t necessarily make sense.

This is, I believe, one of two monkey-oriented books in the Tournament of Books this year. I preferred the other one, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, but this one has its charms. It will come up against one of the three sports-related books from the play-in round. I started, but gave up on two of those three books. (Sudden Death was too all over the place to hold my interest at the time and The Throwback Special bored me.) So, at this point, I’m rooting for this one to win its round. And if Charlie Freeman defeats the The Nix (which I also haven’t read), the two monkey books will go head-to-head in round 2.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 6 Comments

Black Wave

black_waveThe first half of Black Wave by Michelle Tea is boring—very well-written, but tedious. The main character, Michelle, spends most of it drinking and doing drugs and hooking up with different women in late 90s San Francisco. She’s drifting along, sort of functional, but not doing particularly well. She’s able to get herself to her bookstore job, which she managed to snag in part because she’s published a moderately successful memoir, but she hasn’t managed to write anything else.

I think the tedium is intentional on Tea’s part, although I also think that readers who know the scene in which the book takes place will find much to enjoy in the details Tea includes. It’s good writing, and it’s often very funny. Take, for example, this description of the apartment Michelle shares with friends in a house once renowned as “a magic castle of queerness with a serious outlaw history”:

Clovis the Landlord had promised he would not raise the rent and he had no intention of selling the house. The man spent his lonely nights singing into his personal karaoke machine in the flat downstairs. The sound of him singing Sammy Davis Jr., his warbling voice floating up through the floorboards, broke everyone’s heart. Everyone in the punk house loved their landlord. It was okay that the shower, a metal closet, was rusting through the bottom, surely harboring gangrene and soaking the house in soggy rot—Clovis’s second-floor apartment was in no better shape. If he had the money he’d fix their shower, but to get the money he would have to raise their rent, and so they put a milk crate in the shower to stand above the jagged rust and wore flip-flops while they bathed, just in case.

Even though Michelle is obviously living in terrible circumstances, there’s not a real sense of danger. The whole scene is hazed over, whether with nostalgia or drugs isn’t clear. Yet, as evocative as the writing is, it’s not something I could sustain interest in for 300 pages. It’s a good thing, then, that the novel takes a turn just after 100 pages, when Michelle decides to move to Los Angeles. And what a turn it takes!

When we see Michelle in Los Angeles, we learn that a lot of what we’ve just read isn’t exactly true. The characters aren’t exactly who they seemed, and Michelle has adjusted her narrative to protect others’ privacy. But they still have demands—”If you’re going to write about me at least give me good hair,” says her girlfriend, Quinn. To which Michelle thinks, “I Won’t Write About My Life Because No One Wants To Be In My Story.”

Okay, so we’re going to have a narrative about narrative—how memoir arrives at truth and all that. And this, too, is skillfully done. There’s a hilarious bit where Michelle thinks about how to characterize herself and decides to make herself a man in her book:

Maybe Michelle could actually keep the ideas that obsessed her—injustice, struggle, gender, feminism—but put them onto a man, thereby making them universal! Women have been trying to make feminism universal forever but had anyone ever thought of this? She would be such a hero! Michelle felt all fired up but it was probably just coffee. She felt herself sag as the caffeine peaked in her bloodstream and began its retreat.

But the book isn’t done with turning itself into something different. It’s only after this new thread has been established that the black wave of the title arrives. Some sort of ecological disaster, in the form of a wave that will engulf the West Coast is coming. Not right away, but soon. And there’s no stopping it. So life changes, not entirely for the worse either. There’s chaos and crime and loss of infrastructure that we rely on. It’s mostly terrible. Some people commit suicide to escape. But there are always people who keep going, and some of them, like Michelle, are able to eke out a slightly better life for the time they have left. There’s a whole thing about strangers connecting with each other through dreams and them finding each other in life. Life is strange and almost unrecognizable and certain to end soon, but there is life while it lasts.

I don’t want to make the book’s final chapters seem trite and saccharine. It’s too weird and darkly perverse for that. Maybe I was just won over because Michelle spends her last days in a used bookstore making out with Matt Dillon. (Not my type, but still.) But I also liked the idea that life can keep pressing forward, right up until the end. Maybe it doesn’t feel like much of a life, but it is life. It is persistent.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 5 Comments

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

sweet-lamb-of-heavenWhen Anna’s daughter, Lena, was born, Anna started hearing voices. They weren’t telling her anything in particular or even necessarily speaking to her. It was just ambient noise that no one else seemed to be able to hear. And when Lena started talking, the voices stopped.

Six years later, the voices long since gone, Anna is on the run. Her husband, Ned, has become increasingly distant, cold, and unfaithful, and Anna has realized she can no longer live with him. She’s convinced that he won’t accept a divorce because it would mean losing the money she brought to the marriage. He had no actual interest Anna or for Lena. Until now, anyway. After Anna left, Ned decided to run for office in their home state of Alaska, and he needs his loyal wife and adorable daughter at his side for photo ops.

Anna wants nothing to do with Ned or his plans, so she’s made her way to Maine and found a run-down motel that has fully charmed Lena. It’s the off-season, so the motel is quiet. Only gradually does it collect an eclectic group of guests who all form a sort of ad hoc community, looking after Lena and befriending Anna. It’s all a little strange, but Anna prefers this life to anything Ned would give her, and she’s determined to stay hidden from him.

Of course, she can’t stay hidden forever.

This novel by Lydia Millet is a little bit domestic drama, a little bit psychological suspense, and a little bit supernatural horror. These are all genres I’m inclined to enjoy when done well, and I enjoyed this book. I didn’t love it, though. I think I wanted it to get grittier—to commit more fully to the horror of the situation.

That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of horror. The relationship between Ned and Anna has plenty of horror, but it’s hard to see at first. We’re forced to take Anna’s word for it, and she may be delusional. Anna’s narration makes it clear that Ned doesn’t care about her, but her early fear of him that causes her to run away seems without reason. This is not an uncommon thing in life, and I was inclined to believe Anna about Ned’s dark side, but it was life experience that made me feel that way. There’s not much in the book to support Anna’s fear. Once Ned begins pursuing her, Anna’s feelings are justified by the narrative.

The early ambiguity could be a really effective set-up, but the book doesn’t really seem interested in questioning Anna’s reliability. It’s too bad, too, because had the reader been forced to question Anna’s version of events, Ned’s actions at the end of the book would be even more chilling. There’s a way in which gaslighting causes a person to question reality, and Ned, well, let’s just say he knows how to make his own reality. What if we readers had been allowed to be taken in by him, even if just for a moment?

The supernatural elements do come together at the end, and we’re given something of an explanation for the voices. It’s a bunch of mumbo jumbo about the language of the universe being God or some such thing. I’m not sure it entirely makes sense, and I don’t particularly care about all the details of it. I am interested in the tension between being alone and being together that she addresses. And there are some pleasing turns of phrase in Anna’s final musings on how the world works:

Maybe our gods are as small as we are or as large, varying with the size of our empathy. Maybe when a man’s mind is small his God shrinks to fit.

The thing is, even though I’m not entirely convinced that this book works, I’m interested in it. I think Millett is playing with genre by playing it down, keeping it subtle. It’s not entirely effective, but I like the idea of what she’s doing. And the book held my interest from beginning to end. I think it’ll make for some interesting discussion in the Tournament of Books.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Version Control

version-controlI’ve started and set aside several books in the last couple of weeks in what was starting to seem like a futile quest for a really good story. I very nearly decided to give up my intention to read as many Tournament of Books contenders as possible and just turn someone I could count on the give me a good story. But then I picked up Version Control by Dexter Palmer and was caught up in it.

Rebecca Wright, the main character in the novel, is married to a scientist named Philip Steiner who is working on something called a causality violation device (not a time machine!). She drinks too much and is uneasy about what’s happening in the world around her. She’s grieving the death of her son, and her husband is buried in his work. And then… events ensue. (There’s a time machine causality violation device involved, so the nature of the events should be no surprise, although the details may be.)

The first half of the book is mostly uneventful. It’s a lot of set-up, but I enjoyed getting to know the characters and situation too much to be bothered. The world of the book is in our near future. Self-driving cars are the norm, the president can pop onto our screens to talk to us anytime he pleases (shudder), and kids are given customized lessons on tablets at school. It’s just different enough to feel futuristic, but not so different as to feel implausible. And Philip’s scientific work is as much about tedious trying and trying again as it is about making big discoveries. We get the story not just of Rebecca and Philip’s daily life but also the history of their courtship and eventual marriage. They’re an odd pair, but I found their story pretty sweet, even though I’m not sure I could deal with really being close to either of them.

Once the big events ensue, we see how different experiences change and don’t change who people essentially are. Rebecca still drinks a lot, her friend Kate still has a fractious romance with Philip’s colleague Carson, and the guards at the lab still muse over what time travel really is. Yet everything has changed.

The book is jam-packed with characters who like to talk about big ideas. Rebecca’s father, a Unitarian minister, has regular debates about God with Philip. Kate and Carson both muse to friends about whether Kate is secretly or subconsciously racist and therefore unable to live happily in her relationship with Carson, a black man. And Rebecca’s colleagues at Lovability, the online dating service, discuss to what extent their clients are people vs. bits of data. Some of this may come across as false to some readers, but to me, it felt realistic. Not everyone talks about this stuff openly, but some people do. And Palmer avoids turning these discussions into places where he can drum into readers his own ideas regarding these issues. They’re part of the fabric of the world and worth considering, for the characters and us as readers.

I’m still mulling over whether the actual resolution of the plot really works. Is the world the novel ends up with the right one? How can we know? What makes a world the right one? There’s also a lot of scientific talk about transfer of matter and causality that sounds good—good enough for me to shrug, accept, and keep reading. How realistic the science is doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that it’s a good story with some interesting ideas. On that front, it delivers.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

The Discoverers

the-discoverersThe Discoverers is the first in Daniel Boorstin’s “knowledge trilogy.” (The others are The Creators and The Seekers.) This book, more than 700 pages long in small type, describes the progress of the inventors and explorers of Western civilization, beginning with ancient Greece and Rome and continuing through the beginning of the 20th century. Boorstin writes about how inquisitive, persistent, brave, and intelligent people have continued to try to find out about the world around us, and about our own interesting selves, since history began.

Rather than do a simple chronological history, the book is divided into four sections: Time, The Earth and the Seas, Nature, and Society. Time addresses the history of clocks and the process of cutting up our days and years into pieces. (It never occurred to me that — duh — you’d need something other than a sundial at night, so people were making things like water clocks very early on.) Reliable calendars depended on knowing astronomy and geography and mathematics. A reliable clock, with a spring, made navigation possible. And then, of course, navigation opened up the whole world. Boorstin talks about the Mongol Empire and how they opened the way to the East for a few decades before the land curtain came down again; the way Christian dogma messed up mapmaking for centuries; the influence of the Vikings; and the discovery of new flora and fauna during the age of exploration.

This leads easily into the section on Nature. Boorstin explores the importance of experimental science — it wasn’t always the case that people used their senses to learn about the world around them. Slowly, personal observation and the nearly-miraculous invention of the microscope replaced the tyranny of Galen, a Greek physician whose dictates about the human body had been reigning since the third century CE. The Royal Society spread discoveries by letter and the Philosophical Transactions, and people started striving to be first to get credit for a new piece of knowledge (especially Newton, who sounds like a total pill.) We began to catalogue everything in Creation.

The section on Society is the most higgledy-piggledy (as perhaps you’d expect. Is Society more higgledy-piggledy than Nature? Discuss.) It begins with the art of Memory (one of the Muses!) which was largely lost when printing began. Then there’s a piece on the development of the discipline of history over time, and the discovery of prehistory, archaeology, and related sciences like paleography and sphragistics. (Ask me to tell you about sphragistics! I looked it up!) Finally, there’s a brief section on anthropology, demography and statistics, economics (Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes in about three pages), and the atom.

There are a lot of things to like about this book. It’s written in congenial prose, with lots of anecdotes about the people involved. I thoroughly enjoyed, for instance, reading about Captain James Cook, who was sent (among other things) to prove there was no antarctic continent. It was a surprise to me that as recently as the origins of the United States, we still didn’t know whether there was any land at the South Pole. Cook was perhaps the greatest negative discoverer. I also enjoyed reading about Linnaeus, who shocked the scientific community with his unabashed descriptions of the sexuality of plants. Prurient, indeed! The Discoverers has a tremendous amount to say about the excitement of explorers and inventors and how they initiated change.

There are a few things that disappointed me, though. The scope of this book is so broad — well over 5000 years of history — that Boorstin can only touch on Great Men, most of whom are so Great that I already knew about them. There were some exceptions, of course, but for the most part this is Columbus, Vespucci, Galileo, Copernicus, Prince Henry the Navigator, Leeuwenhoek, Linnaeus — not small figures with unexpected contributions. I appreciated the detail and the anecdotes, but I’d have liked to learn more.

Speaking of which, this book is over 700 pages long (did I mention?) and there is not one single woman in it. Not, that is to say, as an inventor, an explorer, a scientist, a mapmaker, an author, or a seeker after knowledge. No Hypatia. No Marie Curie. No Lise Meitner. No Ada Lovelace. No Emilie du Chatelet or Sofia Kovalevskaya or Maria Sibylla Merian. I suppose I should mention that there were a few wives here and there. For instance, Boorstin points out that Michael Faraday’s wife Sarah Bernard “never shared the scientific interests that kept him awake nights, but said she was happy to be ‘the pillow of his mind.'” (!) I do not demand parity (after all, it takes a room of one’s own) but in 700 pages, it became clear that Boorstin’s subtitle (A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself) was deliberate.

I was also not very comfortable with Boorstin’s occasional side trips to China or to Islamic cultures. His approach is to ask, “Why didn’t this culture engage in world exploration/ invent the printing press/ have mechanical clocks?” The implied, and sometimes the explicit, answer is always, “Because something in their culture prevented them from doing it the way we do.” But that is not how different cultures work. There isn’t one cultural norm that all other cultures would match if there weren’t internal obstacles. You can’t explain away cultural difference that way, or even adequately explain why a culture might not instantly adapt your wonderful invention once they see it. Cultures grow up organically for all sorts of reasons that I don’t have time to explain, including locally available foods, religions, trade and relationships with nearby nations, language, customs, kinship structures, government, and on and on. It makes their whole world view different, priorities and all. It’s a bit like asking me, “Why haven’t you succeeded at being a high-powered lawyer?” Because I never wanted to be one, is part of the reason why.

So. Pros and cons. This was a good, readable, interesting book full of anecdote and detail about the inventive people who have made Western Civilization what it is. But if I could, I’d have made it more well-rounded.

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 11 Comments

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

grief-is-the-thing-with-feathersA man and his two sons are grieving the loss of his wife (and their mother) when a crow turns up, promising to stay until he wasn’t needed anymore. The crow observes the family, and the family tries to come to grips with their new reality. This little book by Max Porter tells their story through poems and vignettes that capture the thoughts, dreams, and observation of the dad, the boys, and the crow.

Here’s how the crow explains himself:

In other versions I am a doctor or ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.

In this case, he’s probably a crow because the dad is a Ted Hughes scholar, and Hughes authored a poetry collection called Crow. I haven’t read that collection (in fact, I haven’t read much Hughes at all), and I kind of wish that I had because I wasn’t sure what to make of a crow’s presence in this book. Is he meant to be simply a sign that things are not normal, that the family is living a disrupted life? Is his leaving a sign that they’ve settled in to that new reality?

Grief, the title tells us, is the “thing with feathers”—an Emily Dickinson reference, though her feathered thing is hope. If we take the title at its word, the crow is grief itself. But a grief mixed with hope perhaps? The arrival of the crow breaks the dad out of a sort of daze, and he seems glad about that. Maybe the crow represents a sort of forward motion, going through the work of living on.

The boys are also aware of the crow as they work out their grief together and apart. They always appear together in the book, although it’s clear they have two different personalities. Some of the book’s best, most moving moments involve the boys. They tell lies to themselves and others about what happened to their mother. They make messes around the house so they’ll have a reason to miss her.

There are lots of arresting moments in this book, but I found it hard to connect with as a whole. It seemed to be trying so hard to be profound. It’s so meticulously put together that it never stopped feeling constructed—the effect was that of an exercise than a raw outpouring of grief. This book is part of the Tournament of Books this March, so I’ll be interested to see if others felt the same.

Most of the reviews I’ve seen have been strongly positive. Although this seemed like the kind of book I could like, I just never quite sunk into the concept of it. I’m wondering if my tendency these days to prefer straightforward storytelling was getting in my way here. It’s possible, although I hope this tendency passes because when I enjoy books like this, I tend to enjoy them very much, and I like to enjoy books! And many people have enjoyed this, and I could appreciate parts of it. But it wasn’t quite the book for me right now.

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